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Austin Marathon 2013: My Race Report

March 3, 2013

John Conley, the race director, said at the expo that if you were from Denver, you would be fine running Austin. Denver, he said, not Chicago. Because there are no hills in Chicago, other than the 10-foot mound by the pedestrian underpass at Diversey Harbor. Something about this marathon though, made me dismiss the hills. To register I had to sign the Green Runner Pledge, where I would promise to throw my gel wrappers in designated containers rather than throwing them in the street. THE HELL IS THIS. Chicago marathoners must rely on government workers to clean up after them. I signed the pledge, then I dug it, then I thought, Whoa, creative, Austin is a pretty awesome place.

Troy Campbell at Mile 3 on South Congress Avenue
Photo © Troy Campbell. Used with permission.

Three miles into the race I discovered that the painted yellow lines that marked the center of the road in Austin were not flat; they were sculptured bumps in the asphalt, with bulky yellow lines pasted onto them. It made it hard to run on the sidelines; if I wanted to pick up speed and pass some runners, I would run in the opposite lane facing car traffic. Only after the race I realized that the yellow lines and the hills and the Green Runner Pledge were not there to slow me down—they were there to distract me, to change my focus, to skip the race forward.

Usually the first challenge in marathons is to resist the adrenaline rush and not start too fast. The energy burst at the kickoff made the San Jacinto hill in Mile 1 feel flat as an Olympic track. When I ran the same hill again in Mile 26, it was as if I were transported to a mountain on a high-gravity planet. Starting too fast was beside the point because it was a cold morning—32 degrees and windy at 7 a.m.—and I was not a VIP runner. If I were a VIP runner, I would have my people put up a heated tent at the start of the start line. I would have a steam shower inside and a mini running track where I would run four laps. And while I waited for the gun, Rebecca the masseuse from Milk + Honey would be there to give me her magic upper-back stretch. In reality I did not have a tent and a masseuse—I had a fleece blanket—and my warm-up consisted of running Mile 1 and Mile 2 in the race. At Mile 2, I picked up my pace to make up for lost time. At Mile 8, I slowed down to my target pace, although marathons rarely go according to plan. After Mile 10, I began to fall behind my goal. I lost one minute, then two, then three minutes. I kept trying to make up time but after Mile 13—it was what it was—what was lost, was lost. Exposition Boulevard shut me down at the top of the hill, then the hill at Mile 26 drained my power again. I had to stop and pull myself together. I managed to make up for one out of the three lost minutes—I finished at 4:17:06 and set a new personal best, 12 minutes and 44 seconds faster than my Chicago Marathon time in 2009.

Course talk with Desirée Ficker and John Conley.

Chicago had snow and ice when I trained for Austin, and I ran many of my 5- and 6-milers indoors on a track. I tried to gauge how it would feel to climb 250 feet over three miles. The first 17 miles, the course gained 14 feet of elevation per mile, then it dropped 33 feet per mile over the next 9 miles. I pictured the Mountain of Texas where I would run 17 miles to the top of the mountain and 9 miles down to the other side where the medals were located. Before the race, I drove to South Congress and to Exposition. I watched the RPM dial when the car kicked down a gear. I saw a cyclist crinkle her face and push hard up the hill. Later I went to the marathon expo to learn how to make hills disappear. Desirée Ficker—Des—was on stage, a pretty blonde woman in dark jeans and a white track jacket. Ficker finished second in Austin Marathon in 2007 and came in second place in Kona Ironman 2006. This year she was running the Half Marathon in Austin and she was pregnant. Desirée Ficker had a calming effect on the room, she reminded me of Andrea—the running club’s coach who trained me for my first marathon in 2008. Ficker was as genuine as the oracle in The Matrix—what she said was what was going to happen. After her speech I ditched my theory about the Mountain of Texas. There was no Mountain of Texas.

The three miles going south on South Congress felt like a continuous stretch of running uphill; the end part—in spite of the steeper incline—did not feel more difficult than the three miles leading to it. When Ficker talked about South Congress, she said that right there—when we reached Ben White—was where we should check ourselves. We should not feel tired, the run up to that point should feel like a warm-up, not a workout. That was my big test: Get to the 5.5-mile mark, make the U-turn onto 1st Street, do not feel tired. I felt good. And the next three miles on 1st Street also progressed exactly as Ficker described it, mostly downhill. I let gravity increase my speed naturally without pushing it and a band was jamming Sweet Home Chicago at Mile 7, although the last part was not in Ficker’s talk.

The road turned hilly again at Mile 9 and Mile 10 on Cesar Chavez Street and the pack became tighter. It was a mix of blue bibs and green bibs, marathoners and Half marathoners—the Half marathoners were to stick around until Mile 11 and then turn east toward downtown. A tall person in a big blue shirt was flailing his arms wide, pulling his knees up high, pushing his feet out far. I did not want to run next to him but he was running my pace and I could not get away. The runner on my left was breathing loudly and scuffing his shoes on the road. Seeing people in terrible running forms did not make me feel powerful—it made me anxious. It was a matter of time before my own kryptonite was activated. Normally in marathons, by the time I got to Mile 10, the paces would have settled; the faster runners would have moved on, the slower runners would have lagged behind, my close pack would have become a gang of familiar strangers. Normally, I would have stopped checking my watch and blindly stuck with the gang. But the paces were unbalanced and the people I followed—if their bibs were green—would not be there in two miles.





I wanted to split up from the 13.1ers and move ahead but the bumpy yellow road marks kept me trapped. I followed the girl with the spiky bleached hair and a couple in neon blue and pink t-shirts. Another couple in long pants and jackets shared a cup of water every mile; she drank from it first, then she handed it to him. Behind me on my right a woman picked up a call on her hands-free phone. She was talking to a man on the other side of the line—it sounded like a work-related conversation. She was answering questions: “I left it there with the books,” she told him. We were running the same pace through Mile 10 and I was listening in on her side of the dialogue and forming a background story. I wondered if that was a planned phone call or an emergency call, I tried to guess her profession. I liked that woman, I liked how she rolled with ultimate coolness. Before she hung up, she said that she was feeling good and that it was too early to judge. I did not know if she was referring to her running of a marathon but I felt the same way. It was all good. At Mile 11, a guy on Winsted Lane shouted out, “Free high-fives! Guaranteed power!” His friend was standing next to him, holding up his hand. He had on a dark glove spotted with bright grip dots. I crossed the road to get one. It was real—those pointy silicon dots had powers.

Photo © Rick Kern. Used with permission.

I wanted to split up from the 13.1ers already because there was too much spitting and statistically, after breaking up from them, there would be less spitters in the field. A little sign on Winsted read: 13.1 Right Lane. 26.2 Left Lane. That sign was little. What if they missed it? Then more signs came up—small signs, big signs, yellow signs, green signs. They could not have missed it. One of the right-laners said, “Next year,” and someone replied, “Yeah, that’s right. Next year.” It was sad but there was closure. The crowd separated down the center like the Red Sea where we—the Marathonites—made our exodus with a left turn to Mount Enfield. Running while climbing while turning left sharply was our test, and a bright sign confirmed it: 13.1 WRONG WAY. TURN BACK. I was going the right way; I was following the leaders to fifteen miles of wilderness.

The second half of the course was set in roads that were interweaved with car traffic—one road contained the marathon, another road had people sitting in cars, waiting to cross. Every main intersection had policemen standing between the cars and the runners, making hard judgment calls. I was running behind a girl who slowed down significantly at the top of Bull Creek Road. The police saw her winding down and signaled two cars to enter the intersection. It pissed her off—clearly not an Austinite—she waved both hands at the police and stopped running. The runners behind me—clearly locals—called out: “Thank you, officer! Thank you!” I realized that if I did not want to yield to cars, I should keep up my act and not look tired when the police were watching. I ran through the next major intersections with no incidents, except for one time on Woodrow Avenue when I tried to catch up with a skinny runner dude who obviously had more energy in his tank than I did. He made it through the intersection, then two cars passed, and I went out of my way to not get run over and die.

Desirée Ficker warned us at the expo to not get cocky before we reached Mile 19. I passed Mile 16 and I was almost at the point where mathematically, the course turned mostly downhill. It never really turned downhill, only the change in elevation, on average, became negative after Mile 17. I began to feel hopeful—as if I would be able to run faster soon—and thought about the three minutes I lost at Exposition and Bull Creek. The band at Mile 17 brought me down to earth with their wit. They were singing the Beatles: “Well she was just seventeen. You know what I mean.” It was a beautiful way to break the news to me. THERE WILL BE NO RUNNING FASTER IN THIS MARATHON.

I spelled my name phonetically on my bib so that spectators would know how to pronounce it, otherwise I might not have known they were calling my name. It worked out well—that, and my decision to run in the yellow shirt. Three guys on Northcross Drive were reading my name out loud—one syllable at a time—almost as fast as I was running by them. A woman sitting on the ground on Guadalupe announced it like an expert, “noo-REET,” I was humbled. And there was the group on Duval who yelled out everyone’s name in a sequence. They did not make out my name but they were resourceful and they improvised on the spot: “Go Julie! Go Justin! Go… yellow shirt… WHOO!! Go Robert!”

I made it to Mile 19 and did not feel more tired or less tired, the course did not feel easier, the hills were still in existence. I was checking my watch impatiently looking for the next mile markers. I wanted it to be over. Ficker spoke about the dreaded last seven miles. She said to think of our own, everyday 6- 7-mile run, to make it seem easy. I did that. I thought about the Lakefront trail in Chicago. I placed myself at the totem pole at Addison Street, then I ran south to the dog beach at Belmont Harbor. I climbed the bridge at Diversey, passed Fullerton and was able to see the boathouse from there and North Avenue Beach. That was where I was headed—to my Mile 26 mark.

Lunatic Theory at Mile 21 on Woodrow Avenue
Photo © Lunatic Theory. Used with permission.

With every hill I climbed I wanted it to be the last hill. It was not. Nobody said, “It’s all downhill from here,” because he would be lying. After Mile 23, every climb had a self-designated cheerleader standing at the top and instilling positive thoughts in the runners. “Great job, y’all. Great job,” she said. “Way to stick it out.” It hurts. Suck it up. “You make it look easy!” Bloody blisters. Not the end of the world. Two more miles.

The band at Mile 25 was reciting words of assurance into a microphone, like a mantra. There were no musical instruments, only broken sentences on repeat. It was soothing, like hearing the voice of God. “Almost there… So close… Little bit more… Keep going…” I felt a ball of energy rolling down all the hills in Texas, sweeping me with it. All I needed was to stay in the zone, to keep moving like a machine, to let my wheels spin and take me there. I checked my time, I was two minutes behind my goal. But that was it—it was over.

Photo © Rick Kern. Used with permission.

The sprint to the finish was glorious. Once I passed the hardest part—the hill on San Jacinto at Mile 26—everything was moving faster than fast and the signs turned to metric. I doubt many knew what 100 meters meant in terms of distance, nevertheless it was a good sign. An official announcer was standing inside the course at the first of the three finish lines. He said something about Chicago and then he said “Her first one,” and looked at me and smiled. It was confusing why there were three timing mats. The first mat was placed yards away from the other two and I did not know whether I should keep running after I had been announced. It was my first Austin Marathon and it was my best marathon time, because Austin is a pretty awesome place.

Photos © Nurit Pazner or respective owner.

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